One hundred years ago, the Big Red One experienced the horrors of gas warfare for the first time.
First in Combat
The 1st Division doughboys tasted trench warfare when they moved to the front in the autumn of 1917. On November 2, the first three American soldiers to be killed in action fell during a German raid near the village of Bathelémont. Partly as a result of this action—investigated by young captain named George C. Marshall—General Robert Bullard was assigned to command the 1st Division. Impatient and aggressive, Bullard determined that he would never let the Big Red One be surprised again.
General Bullard Leads the Way
In January 1918 Bullard led his division into the Ansauville sector in Lorraine, north of the French city of Toul. This was supposed to be a “quiet” area, where the Americans could learn about modern warfare at leisure. Unfortunately, the Germans applied brutal lessons all too quickly. Enemy troops easily observed most of the 1st Division’s lines from an eminence called Mont Sec, and in places the American and German positions were only fifty yards apart. Rain, snow and sleet pelted the miserable doughboys daily, filling up their trenches with water and viscous mud.
General Bullard’s first order to his troops was: “There are no orders which require us to wait for the enemy to fire on us before we fire on him; do not wait for him to fire first.” He also insisted on regular patrols and raids to keep his troops—and the enemy—on their toes. “In doing these things we have inevitably lost men,” he proudly declared after a few weeks in the line, “but gained heart and made the enemy feel us as is shown by his increased circumspection.” No one complained about the casualties—this was war, and the doughboys yearned to fight.
In February, American artillery began experimenting with chemical warfare, lobbing a few dozen chlorine and phosgene poison gas shells at the enemy lines. They did not have to wait long for a response. On February 26, 1918, the Germans launched a massive gas bombardment against 1st Division positions. The consequences were devastating.
The Big Red One and other American divisions had received intensive training in gas warfare. Instructors knew about the dangers of German mustard gas, which burned men on the outside as well as inside. Warning the doughboys that gas attacks would separate “the quick and the dead,” instructors told them to don their gas masks quickly; wear them until ordered to take them off; avoid exposing their skin; and at all costs stay out of shell holes and dugouts filled with gas.
Administrative foul-ups left the doughboys with insufficient and sometimes faulty equipment, however, and thousands of soldiers entered the lines without gas respirators. Worse, repeated drills left some of the Americans lazy rather than alert. They neglected their equipment and ignored alarms. As a result, on February 26 many reacted too late. When gas alarms sounded along the line, doughboys ignored them until sickly yellow gas came wafting into their dugouts. Others panicked. One battalion commander reported:
“One man in panic stampeded and knocked down two others adjusting their masks. He rushed down the trench screaming and made no attempt to put on his respirators. He died shortly after reaching the dressing station. Another man threw himself in the bottom of the trench and began to scream. Two others trying to adjust his respirator had their own pulled off and were gassed. He was finally carried out of the area but died not long after. Another private couldn’t find his respirator and became panic-stricken. When it was found and finally adjusted, he claimed it was broken and changed into his French mask, breathing in gas while he changed. On the way to the dressing station he repeatedly pulled the French mask away from his face and breathed the gas laden air, and died shortly after reaching the station. An officer was gassed while shouting to the men to keep their respirators on.”
“The suddenness and the violence of the attack, coupled with the overwhelming fumes of the gas, were horrifying,” declared one officer. Although only seventy casualties were reported that day, dozens more came in to dressing stations and hospitals over the following days. Hundreds of doughboys—this was typical throughout the war—thought they had only caught a “whiff” of gas and did not report as casualties, only to find later, sometimes after the war, that their lungs had been irretrievably ruined. Of the 549 total casualties suffered by the division during its stay in the Ansauville sector, well over half fell victim to mustard and other forms of poison gas.
Painful Lessons, New Strength
At terrible cost the 1st Division doughboys learned a vital lesson at Ansauville. Never again would they be caught so terribly unprepared for gas attacks—although other outfits went through the same brutal process as they reached the front. The Big Red One, though, was toughened. Just a few days later, on March 1, German troops attempted to raid the 1st Division trenches only to be “met by a strong fire from our infantry, who stood up before the enemy without flinching, refraining from going into the dugouts and holding their trenches with rifle fire and hand grenades.” Soon they would be ready to do their bit in driving the Germans out of France.
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